A brief look at Mumbai

Castlegar News bi-weelkly columnist shares experiences enjoyed during a recent trip abroad.

I’d read my E. M. Forster, and my Narayan and Anand. From these books and others, I had a picture in my mind of India and Indian life. I’d also read all about Mahatma Ghandi and saw the movie. But Ghandi lived mainly in the first half of the last century, and Forster’s “A Passage to India” was published in 1924.

So, could I still expect to be able to view the traditional Indian lifestyle I’d read about? Supposedly, India is on a fast track to modernization, so perhaps the images I was holding onto were out of date.

What hadn’t changed as our bus wound through the streets of Mumbai were the immense numbers of people.  People everywhere, milling about in the markets, jamming the streets, and filing off of trains. The difference was that the costumes were everything from the expected traditional colourful dress with white Nehru hats and turbans to expensive business suits.

Also, vehicles of every description (mostly modern) motored along the streets, bumper to bumper, and backed up for miles in some places.  And the taxis lorded it over all the other traffic on the streets. There were taxis at every tourist entry point, taxis at the market drop-off point, taxis flowing along the streets, and taxis hugging parking spots as their drivers waited for their passengers.

One custom definitely had not changed. This was the noon lunch delivery known as a “dabba.” In the heart of the business district just before noon, men began to arrive carrying numerous containers on their bicycles and above their heads. Some had small stretchers balanced above them with 15 to 30 boxes and pots of hot food on them.

These men were delivering to people who worked in the nearby offices. They set these stretchers down on the sidewalk and then waited for the next relay person in the chain to take the lunches to the offices of the owners (husbands).

The process begins early in the day when a first delivery man called a “dabbawalla” stops at homes in the outlying districts and picks up lunches housewives have prepared. The wife goes to great lengths to make sure her husband has a substantial, usually hot, lunch. Once the courier has his quota of lunches picked up, say by 10 a.m., he takes them by bicycle or cart to the nearest re-distribution centre. Next, the lunches are taken by a second delivery person who often oversees the movement of the lunches by train to the downtown terminus station.  Finally, a porter carries the lunches to platforms on the street for further delivery to the business offices.

What impressed us was how efficient this relay system was. Apparently, even though 4,000 carriers deliver 120,000 lunches per day, lunches are rarely ever misplaced or go missing. The wives create the lunches, the delivery people carry them into the city, and the businessmen receive a hot meal. We were told that delivery of the lunches costs the equivalent of $40 a month.

We wondered out loud why the businessmen didn’t take their lunches with them when they went to work. But nobody had an answer for us, and it was a charming routine that we’d never heard about. Also, it provided employment for huge numbers of carriers, most of whom are from the villages and are illiterate.

As we watched this on-the-street dabba event, however, we noticed many executives in elegant Italian suits heading to the nearby restaurants. So in the midst of delivered lunches, perhaps we were already getting a glimpse of the future.